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article imageOp-Ed: One woman's life in an oyster shell of chaos reveals a pearl Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Apr 29, 2016 in Lifestyle
Sonoma - The comedian/entertainer Phyllis Diller in an interview once said that the hardships in life are like the grain of sand that agitates an oyster into making a beautiful pearl.
And, this could be said about the work of realtor turned author Catherine Sevenau. This past winter she released her second book, "Queen Bee - Reflections on Life and Other Rude Awakenings."
Like her first book, "Behind These Doors - A Family Memoir" published two years ago in 2014, Sevenau reflects upon a lot of personal and family history. Yet, "Queen Bee" is filled with humor amid the difficult recollections of a fractured family.
I could not help but recognize as I read the diary-like prose of "Queen Bee" the impact a mother makes upon a person. For Sevenau it is perhaps the lack of a mother that becomes much of her narrative. She noted, "my mother left really before I was born, came back for a while, had me and a couple of nervous breakdowns, then left again. My oldest sister Carleen was 13 when I was born and 17 when mom left for good; Carleen became the caretaker of the family.”
No doubt in my mind, this experience is that grain of sand in the delicate interior of an oyster that Diller mentioned in her analogy of what makes an artist bring forth the pearl-like material to an audience.
And, since the month of May is for Mother's Day, I figured it would be an appropriate time to write a review of Sevenau's book. First and foremost, I have to say, Sevenau's writing pulled me in right from the start. Her ability to write about such deep and heart-wrenching things and yet have some humor is uncanny and compelling.
The hard-bumpy oyster shell of her childhood experiences has a 'mother-of-pearl' interior. A tremendous amount of her writing reads like poetry. In one of the more than 80 entries she writes. "I wish for my grandchildren and their children... to hold dear their genuine curiosity... I want them to know seventh heaven and the seven seas. I want them to be magnificently fearless, passionate, thankful, and kind. I want them to grow up and be useful, to make a difference, and to lead a life well lived. And, with the greatest of hope, I want them to know peace."
To meet Sevenau in person is at first to see the realtor, business manager, and property owner. Savvy, experienced, sharp and courageous she is when taking on a challenging venture. Yet, getting to know the writer, the storyteller, or "family scribe" as she refers to herself in her work, is different. Like all writers and artists, a vulnerability emerges, even if still defensive at times. For she is telling the truth, her truth. That alone, for anyone who understands good writers and artists, is the precious pearl that is often of great price.
Sevenau told me more of her childhood. "I was a quiet kid and had a tendency to stay invisible, so I did not have much of a support system."
I asked her if her older sister Carleen who took over as 'mom' had any resentments? "She was overwhelmed,” said Sevenau, “and I imagine resentful. But she rose to the occasion. I went to live with her permanently when I was nine, and I probably wouldn’t be here today if she’d not taken me in."
Still, as Sevenau recollects, "I did want my mother to love me but, alas, that was not to be. She didn’t have it in her, and it really had nothing to do with me." And, then Sevenau's humor comes thru as she added, "My timing was simply off."
As if any child born has to be ‘at the right time.’ But as we all know, children have no control over when they will enter the world. Another thing that struck me as I read Sevenau's book was how much times have changed for women over the years.
When Sevenau was born, the idea that a woman could make choices about her life and seek a fulfilling career was limited. Ordinarily, most women at that time only worked until they got married. Marriage and family was the basic occupation and life-purpose for women. And, apparently, Sevenau's mother Noreen fell into that category, following the established convention of the time, but it was not a role that she could bear.
In today's world, women have more options. It is expected that they work and be independent, and it is acceptable to delay having children or choose not to marry. This is vastly different than what women of only 50 to a hundred years ago experienced.
Even with our modern understandings of growth and human psychology, the profound role a mother has on a child is something I don't overlook. And almost immediately, as I read her writings, the vulnerability of Sevenau had distinctive delineations very much like the faint patterns within the oyster shell. Or perhaps even the grain and rings within the trunk of a tall majestic tree, once it has been cut down.
In today's social terminology her childhood would be defined as "at risk" by social workers. She noted, “I lived with my mother from the time I was five until I was nine, and during that time I suffered from a 'failure to thrive.’ I had numerous hospital stays due to malnutrition and dehydration from vomiting spells. I was often lonely, confused, and scared. There were times I wanted to die.” She added, “I was less than 10 years old. That is a lot of weight for a child to carry."
Along with her sister, Sevenau had other ‘stand-ins’ throughout her life, mothers that were ‘good enough.’ As an afterthought she added, "It took me a long time to learn to mother myself. For years I neglected myself in many of the same ways my mother neglected me; I didn’t eat well, worked too much, was stressed raising kids on my own and keeping a roof over our heads. And I was sick a lot. I still have to remember to take care of myself. I’m better at it, but it doesn’t come naturally. Fortunately, I did a relatively good job with my kids in mothering them, and, I could have done better."
Reading Sevenau's two books, but especially "Queen Bee," I realize that being a parent, especially a mother, is a delicate and difficult job. So much is depending on the mother. What's that old phrase? "If momma's not happy, no one is happy."
The power of motherhood is incredible and one of the most powerful forces in nature on this planet. Yet, as a force to be reckoned with, motherhood is simply built upon only flesh and blood, finite earthly material. That special spark or golden thread of the divine, even when it appears, is not a guarantee.
Perhaps that is the life-lesson in the writings of a family scribe such as Catherine Sevenau. We can't take motherhood as granted, nor can we demand a childhood be perfect and magical in every way.
The turn out at Readers  Books in Sonoma for Catherine Sevenau s second book launch was standing roo...
The turn out at Readers' Books in Sonoma for Catherine Sevenau's second book launch was standing room only.
We can however, recognize that life is a gift to be lived and cherished. As Sevenau writes in the last entry of "Queen Bee," I am from good intentions and unattended sorrows; from courage and hope and grace. I am from extended arms, extended kindness and extended family. I am grateful. I am from a company of strangers, this family, of it, but not in it, watching from the sidelines, taking notes, sifting through our story and writing down our history, wondering what directs us, what pokes us and prods us and has us be who we are, questioning how I fit into the whole catastrophe, and, at the end of the day—knowing I belong. I am they. I am me. I am."
Published by Tintype Publishing of Sonoma, California, "Queen Bee - Reflections on Life and Other Rude Awakenings” is available on-line and through local bookstores, like Readers' Books of Sonoma. Go to Catherine Sevenau's web site for information how to purchase if you are so inclined. Catherine would love for you to careen around with her in the back seat of her mind.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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